Trump's Immigration Ideas Are as Bad as Ever

Actual candidate is larger.

Photographer: Ralph Freso/Getty Images

After more than a week of conflicting accounts of Donald Trump’s views on immigration, a period of confusion marked by words such as “softening,” Trump made his intentions clear Wednesday. The line is as hard as ever, even if the policy is all over the place.

In the afternoon, Trump had a strange, subdued meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. At a joint appearance afterward, the Republican presidential candidate was positively demure, speaking of joint U.S.-Mexican endeavors to benefit the “hemisphere.” By evening, he was back in Phoenix, giving a speech in full-nativist mode. He shouted out what he called a plan on immigration, but it wasn’t actually a plan.

No matter what happens in November, the basic bargain of an immigration agreement remains unchanged: some form of increased security against illegal immigration along with a humane and economically rational dispensation for the millions of undocumented immigrant families who have been living and working in the U.S. for years. In terms of tone, Trump is all over the place, but he’s consistent, at least, in refusing to engage with this reality.

His signature idea is still the wall -- a “beautiful southern border wall.” In fact, the wall is largely beside the point. The most effective place to cut illegal immigration is in the workplace, with a mandatory system of employer verification. Without that, if there’s gainful employment to be had, strivers will find a way in. As for getting Mexico to pay for Trump’s irrelevant wall, Pena Nieto rejected the idea out of hand -- and with more credibility than his visitor could muster.

Trump also said he’d immediately deport 2 million criminal immigrants, without saying how he arrived at that large number or how they would be identified and rounded up. Other undocumented immigrants would have to leave and then apply for legal entry, he said. He promised an expanded “deportation task force” to make this stick -- but he also said that some undocumented immigrants might, after all, be allowed to stay. It was unclear who, when or why.

Amid the confusion, Trump keeps piling on the distortion. “There is no paperwork,” Trump said of Syrian refugees coming to the U.S., whose number he greatly exaggerated. In fact, the refugees go through an extensive vetting process. Ignoring years of public and private research, he said the government has no clue how many undocumented immigrants there really are: Maybe 30 million, he said, a figure many times debunked.

Immigration needs to be controlled, to be sure -- even though the number of undocumented immigrants has declined since the Great Recession, and the number of illegal crossings has plummeted in recent years. Screening applicants for higher skills makes sense, too. The U.S. should debate that idea. But Trump’s outlandish scare stories and fantasy promises are no help in framing a better policy.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.